In the last few days, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie became every Democrat’s favorite Republican. Christie praised President Obama’s help for the Garden State during the hurricane and then rightly expressed disinterest in whether Mitt Romney would helicopter in for an unnecessary photo op. The photo of the president and the governor shaking hands has become the new symbol of bipartisanship as the two worked together to support the rescue and recovery operations. But anyone who thinks this is a model to heal the deep divide between liberals and conservatives on many basic issues is dead wrong.
Politicians should work together when it comes to dealing with natural disasters. After all, there is no — or at least shouldn’t be — a Democrat or Republican approach to helping those rendered homeless or to ensuring public safety in an emergency. Were they to fail to do so under these circumstances, it would be cause for severe criticism. In this case, both Obama and Christie were merely doing their duty, not performing some amazing or unprecedented task.
But this much-welcomed new era of good feelings has nothing to do with the real issues that cause gridlock in Washington. On issues like ObamaCare, spending, taxes and the debt the differences between the parties are not a function of oversized political egos or clashing personalities but of basic principles. What those who urge bipartisanship often really want is for one side to abandon their principles and to adopt those of their opponents. That was the defining characteristic of “moderate Republicans” for much of the second half of the 20th century as they acquiesced to much of the liberal project and did nothing to reform it. While it is understandable that liberals would miss this thankfully almost extinct breed of bipartisans, their nostalgia has nothing to do with good government and everything to do with their desire to go back to winning arguments against opponents who wouldn’t stand up to them.
For too much of our political history, bipartisanship was just a nice way of saying that a significant portion of one of our two major parties agreed with their opponents on some of the big issues facing the republic. Prior to the Civil War, there was a lot of bipartisanship as Southern Whigs agreed with both Northern and Southern Democrats that slavery should not be disturbed. It was those annoying Northern Whigs who morphed into the nascent Republican Party that upset that consensus and were blamed for starting all the commotion that led to war. A similar kind of bipartisanship preserved the Jim Crow south in the following century. Though one shouldn’t compare slavery to modern liberalism, what those moderate Republicans often did was to offer no alternative to the left, a state of affairs that suited Democrats just fine.
If many in today’s contemporary Republican Party are not willing to do the “go along to get along” routine in the Capitol it is not because they are any more obnoxious than the Democrats. It is because they see the country heading over a fiscal cliff of spending and taxing that is sinking our economy now and crippling our future.
Some of these conservatives have sometimes overplayed their hand, as they did in 2011 during the debt-ceiling crisis. But they were far from alone in making mistakes during that summer, as President Obama was as guilty of avoiding reasonable compromises. Indeed, while the Tea Partiers were sometimes stuck in an ideological corner into which they had painted themselves, the president’s purpose seemed to be to goad them into open conflict so as to enhance his own political prospects.
The current House Republican majority was elected in 2010 to oppose the agenda of the Democrats who controlled the White House and both Houses of Congress for the previous two years, not to play along with it. While Bill Clinton listened to the people and sought to compromise with the GOP Congress that was elected in 1994, Obama dug in his heels and asked for another stimulus boondoggle and refused to alter ObamaCare. Thus we were left with a standoff that could only be resolved by another election.
On Tuesday, the people will decide whether they want more government or less, Democrats or Republicans. Bipartisanship on issues where there is no real disagreement needs no encouragement. But what we need is a resolution of those issues where we do disagree via the democratic process. If the voters can’t fully make up their minds and give us another round of divided government, those in charge will, out of necessity, have to deal with each other. But that is the fallback position, not the ideal. What we need is not a muddled and unprincipled political class dealing with each other but advocates of differing policies standing up and offering the voters clear choices. This is exactly the philosophy that the tough-talking Christie has advocated the GOP to adopt. For that we need elections, not hurricanes.